Pain my old friend, I don’t remember our first meeting. If my 10-month-old son is anything to go by we were acquainted very early. I have vague recollections of multiple hospital visits for stitches courtesy of my dear sister. Dislocated thumbs were common playing rugby, as well as the many bike crashes including the one where I shouted: “Mum, I’m bleeding from my willy!”
A seriously sprained left ankle left me on crutches but nothing could have prepared me for the debilitating experience injuring my back delivered. Crawling on my hands and knees not being able to stand left me feeling helpless but was the catalyst for me entering the fitness industry back in 2002.
Next came the scariest moment of my life. On a sunny September afternoon in 2003, I was driving my moped home from work. I came off the N11 at Foxrock Church. Someone had just got married and all the guests were leaving. I spotted the car coming out of the car park. I saw the driver. He looked left at the traffic on the other side of the road. He didn’t look right. Has he seen me?
To my utter disbelief, he shot straight out in front of me. I was thrown over the bonnet in what felt like slow motion and bounced along the tarmac until I skidded to a halt.
The next day, after been discharged from the hospital, my relationship with pain ascended to a whole new level. Robots would have moved more freely than me.
And for the next few years, I battled to find a solution. From injections and surgery, chiropractors and osteopaths to reiki and hypnosis I tried everything. I got short term relief from some, none from others and made great progress with a select few. I have dedicated the last 16 years to finding out as much about pain as I can. I’m fascinated by it. How it can seem fine or at least bearable on certain days while others feel like I’m as brittle as glass and every inch of me hurts.
One of the earliest breakthroughs I had was with hypnosis. As I spoke with the hypnotist, Brian Colbert, he stopped me and pointed out the language I was using. I spoke about my pain & my whiplash. Brian helped me realise I was mentally holding on to it. If it’s mine why would I let it go? My Son, My Car, My Pain.
He also helped me realise how relaxing helped reduce the sensitivity. It makes perfect sense to me now. Tension = Tightness = Restriction = Heightened sensitivity/Pain
This idea has now been proven with the advances in the study of Pain Science. Pain is a signal, it’s protective. It’s your brain bringing your attention to something. You might be moving in a way that’s inefficient or you might be overworking certain body parts like your knees or your back. Maybe your bad/weak back is actually a back that’s working way too hard.
Pain isn’t a sign of damage or wear and tear. You can hold your hand over an open flame. It will hurt but you won’t burn/damage your skin unless you leave it there. Even then, the protective pain won’t let you leave it there for too long and any mild burn will heal in a matter of days. Pain does not equal damage.
Images of the spines of symptom and pain-free patients tell us that degeneration, bulges, and protrusions are common and not a cause of pain. 80% of 50-year-olds have disc degeneration while 60% have disc bulges.
Sham (placebo) knee surgeries for meniscus tears and osteoarthritis produce just as much recovery as the real thing.
A bulging disc isn’t necessarily painful and many people function perfectly fine with them feeling no pain at all. In fact, when you think about it, those discs look like they are meant to bulge. They act as shock absorbers, allowing your spine to bend and move. They get bulged or squashed multiple times a day. They’re probably not meant to stay squashed or stuck in one position though.
Our perception of what pain is and what it means is a big factor.
If we believe pain to be a bad thing, if we think we’re causing damage with every painful movement then it makes perfect sense to want to consciously protect ourselves more. However, this is a vicious cycle. We feel pain and think that equals damage, we fear damage and therefore pain increases, and so on.
We describe things like pulled muscles and slipped discs when often these are muscle spasms. Another protective mechanism with no actual damage.
Someone learning to walk again goes through agonising rehab to restore function in their legs. In this case, pain is necessary, it does not equal damage.
This is not to say it’s all in your head. Even though the pain we feel doesn’t actually exist in the joints and muscles but instead resides in the nervous system, anyone with chronic joint pain, like myself, can attest to it feeling very much in specific spots.
We can point to it, we can push on it, we can tell exactly where we feel it. But this is actually the nervous system trying to protect you. Trying to get you to change something so you move differently.
There’s a phenomenon known as phantom limb pain. Where amputees feel excruciating pain in the amputated limb. There’s nothing there, no muscles or joints, yet they will swear their amputated limb is killing them. This is because the pain originates in the spinal cord and brain.
To demonstrate this, neuroscientists have created an experiment called the rubber hand illusion. This shows how easy it is to change the brain’s perception of its physical self. And if it’s that easy imagine what might happen when we stop moving as well as we used to.
Pain can be stressful and often stress is painful. Stress is our threat response. It too is a nervous system reaction. It causes your body to be on high alert. This means more tension in your muscles, shorter breathing, and elevated heart rates.
Stress can be a good thing if we use it. But if we are on high alert all the time the tension can restrict movement. We don’t breathe as efficiently so we don’t relax as much. Our joints become stiffer and our posture becomes stuck. This comes back to perception. If we are under stress and feel pain it can create more stress which does nothing to help improve how we feel. It keeps us tense and tight, stiff and sore.
3 things that I strive to do daily, although I don’t always achieve them, are:
Relax, Move and Hydrate
Relaxing more helps reduce stress which reduces tension which will help your joints & muscles move more. As a business owner and new father, I need to ensure I make time for relaxation. Stress is one of my biggest pain aggravators. When I’m stressed, tired and overworked I feel fragile, I ache, some days I just want to stay in bed. It’s my body’s way of telling me to look after myself more. Meditation, deep breathing, walks/light runs, laughing, and the cinema works best for me.
Moving more doesn’t mean just exercising, although that can help with relaxing more. By moving more I mean striving to restore the movement you used to have. Joint movement. Can your spine bend and flex as designed, can your shoulders rotate and reach, do your hips allow you to sit on the floor without them or your back aching? Basic joint mobility can go a long way to helping you reawaken movements you thought you had lost. It reminds your brain and your nervous system you’ve more capacity and it’s safe to move. We’ve had numerous members who have suffered from limited movement and pain for years declare miracles simply because we showed them how to reawaken their natural movement.
Hydration is one of the easiest. It’s so easy that most people dismiss it. How can a few glasses of water help with chronic pain?
First of all, water lubricates our joints. So it goes without saying drinking enough (so your pee is consistently a light straw colour) will help anyone with stiff/achy joints. Even a 1-2% drop in hydration is another stressor to the body and can cause dizziness and headaches. In a situation like this, hydrating your brain and vital organs is more important than your joints.
We also know that muscle cramping (essentially a failure in the function of your muscles) can be caused by dehydration. This would be quite serious and would require a 5% drop in hydration. But think about what might be happening at milder levels. Your muscles certainly wouldn’t be functioning at their best. Seeing as it’s our muscles that move our bones it makes sense to want them performing at their best, irrespective of whether you’re exercising or not. Our fitness trackers suggest we take 10,000 steps a day but even 5000 is an awful lot to ask of joints and muscles that are underperforming.
I know this sounds too simple. I get it. I’ve experienced chronic pain for years. I’ve had times where a flare-up would keep me in bed for days. I’ve innocently moved my neck one way and all of a sudden I’m in severe pain and can’t move it at all. And I’m not saying this will help everyone but it’s a start. If you do experience pain ensure you make time for relaxation and hydration and please, don’t be afraid to move. There’s a reason you have 360 joints in your body. You were designed to move!
John O'Connell is the owner of SF Fitness & Health Centre. He started working in the fitness industry in 2002 after suffering a back injury. He has worked with many professional organisations including Leinster Rugby, An Garda Siochana, New Zealand Rugby, Dublin GAA, Spar and CBRE. He has also appeared muliple times on both RTE & TV3 as a health & fitness expert. John is the co-author of 2 international best selling books - Total Body Breakthroughs and The Fit Formula.